The canal cuts across the Isthmus of Panama and is a key conduit for international maritime trade.
Work on the canal, which began in 1880, was completed in 1914, making it no longer necessary for ships to sail the lengthy Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America and to navigate the dangerous waters of the Strait of Magellan.
One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, the Panama Canal shortcut made it possible for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in half the time previously required. The shorter, faster, safer route to the U.S. West Coast and to nations in and along the Pacific Ocean allowed those places to become more integrated with the world economy.
The Panama Canal has seen annual traffic rise from about 1,000 ships when it opened in 1914, to 14,702 vessels in 2008, the latter measuring a total of 309.6 million Panama Canal/Universal Measurement System (PC/UMS) tons.
By 2008, more than 815,000 vessels had passed through the canal, many of them much larger than the original planners could have envisioned; the largest ships that can transit the canal today are called Panamax. The American Society of Civil Engineers has named the Panama Canal one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
Take a ride up the canal here.